SZYMANOWSKI. Harnasie, op. 55 (1923-31). Mandragora, op. 43 (1920). Kniaz
Patiomkin (Prince Potemkin), op. 51 (1925).
Wieslaw Ochman (tenor), Alexander Pinderak (tenor), Ewa Marciniec (mezzo),
Ewa Marczyk (violin), Kazimierz Koslacz (cello), Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra
and Choir/Antoni Wit.
Naxos 8.570723 (B) (DDD) TT: 73:17
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Polish polish. Always a good composer, Karol Szymanowski became a great
one in the Twenties, once he had thrown off the traces of post-Wagnerianism
and Impressionism and forged Polish folklore into a Modern music. In
many ways, his music suffered because he lived in Poland, at the time
backwater whose taste ran to third-rate followers of Chopin. The Polish
critical establishment considered even early Debussy unacceptable. Szymanowski's
tours away from the country to places like Paris (as a young man, he
was a virtuoso pianist) brought Debussy and beyond into his ken. Indeed,
his lifetime, his music scored far greater successes outside Poland than
I find it hard to judge the music for the Micinski play Prince Potemkin.
It's actually incidental music for the fifth act and, as such, tied to
stage action. The liner notes, unfortunately, don't give us any of the
situation for which Szymanowski intended the music. Formally, it's a
little loose (a narrative like many film cues, actually), but one hears
stretches, particularly toward the end, when a chorus and solo mezzo
enter with what sounds like a funeral song.
Mandragora, like Richard Strauss's Ariadne, was intended as an entertainment
within the Molière play Le Bourgeois gentilhomme. Instead of music
for the classical play, Szymanowski provided a commedia dell' arte ballet
in three scenes. Mandragora is the fruit of Szymanowski's dissatisfaction
with his previous idioms and view of art. He had dedicated himself to pure
beauty -- "art for art's sake" -- tied to nothing but itself.
After all, even the great musical Impressionists, also concerned with ravishing
beauty, had a moral or philosophic vision. It wasn't beauty for its own
sake. It consisted of an almost preternatural absorption of the details
of the real world, to achieve a union with nature or even the super-natural.
Whereas Debussy's Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun makes you feel the
summer heat, things like Szymanowski's Third Symphony and Love Songs
of Hafiz almost always comes across to me as disembodied exotica, an attitude
struck rather than deeply felt. Mandragora, despite its somewhat arty basis,
clears away a lot of the purple weeds encrusted on Szymanowski's older
style. The music is leaner, cleaner, and I think even the more beautiful
for it. One also perceives a wider range of expression. Szymanowski allows
humor (as opposed to whimsy) into his music, previously notable only through
its absence. One finds satirical allusions (as well as straight borrowings)
from Stravinsky's Firebird and Petrushka. Toward the end of the first scene,
Szymanowski breaks into Neapolitan song, complete with a send-up of an
Italian tenor. The funny thing is, it's an extremely good song of its type.
One senses affection in the satire. The second scene contains short goodbye
kisses to Wagner (Tristan) and Debussy (Prelude to the Afternoon, etc.)
and moves on to the unusual: Italian dances with a decidedly Polish accent
and unusual orchestral voicings, which carry over to the third scene. I
believe Szymanowski, always a Polish nationalist, has begun to feel his
Harnasie is the great national Polish ballet and stakes a major claim
for the composer as a giant of musical Modernism. No company in Poland
it during Szymanowski's lifetime. The composer has begun to absorb Stravinsky's
example into his bones. The Russian's ritualism, as much as anything
else, finds an echo chord within Szymanowski, and this becomes a dominant
of Szymanowski's music from then on. Even with the striking change in
Szymanowski's idiom exemplified by Mandragora, Harnasie's music comes
as a shock -- raw,
powerful stuff. The story concerns a gang of mountain robbers, the Harnasie,
who carry off, like Lochinvar, a would-be bride from her wedding. The
music evokes the Tatra mountains and the wild. It affords Szymanowski
to write great shouting choruses, to beat drums and bells, and to temporarily
rest in the static world of ancient folklore, represented by the repetitive
line of shepherds' songs and the unvarying refrains of folk poetry, to
channel the primitive, paradoxically, in music of great sophistication
Antoni Wit deserves a much wider career than he's had so far. I've never
heard a bad performance from him and have encountered quite a few excellent
ones. I think his Harnasie better than Rattle's, which was wonderful.
But Wit has a better overall grasp of the score. It's not just bright
or momentary jolts. He makes you comprehend the work in its entirety.
His account of Mandragora is simply the best I've heard, and he makes
of the Patiomkin music as possible, achieving a strongly cohesive reading
the further he goes along. By the end, you undergo a huge catharsis.
As I've implied, you can't predict this from the score alone. The two
are operatic tenors and hence fairly crude singers, although Pinderak
sings more flexibly and intelligently than Ochman, who (naturally) has
career. Mezzo Ewa Marciniec shoots them both out of the water in her
sorrow-laden contribution to Patiomkin. The Warsaw Philharmonic respond
and seem to revel in the odd sounds Szymanowski gives them in Mandragora and Harnasie. But they also sing with genuine tragedy in Patiomkin. Yet
another superb CD from Naxos, and for cheap, yet.
S.G.S. (February 2010)